Exclusive: The SLN Emil Sharlt Career Retrospective Interview

If there is any fundamental law of game design, it is that your open world game needs some side content that fucking sucks. Since 2004, Emil Sharlt has been the poster boy for this design paradigm.

Exclusive: The SLN Emil Sharlt Career Retrospective Interview
Photo by VD Photography / Unsplash

If there is any fundamental law of modern triple-A game design, it is that your open world game needs some side content that fucking sucks. Many complain about it, but it's never necessary to the main story, and you could just skip it if you weren't the sort of weirdo who cares about "achievements" in games. Some even argue that games would be worse without some activities to avoid doing because they're a miserable slog. That perhaps the only meaningful player choice in gaming is to not do part of the game at all because it sucks and you'd hate every second.

Since 2004, Emil Sharlt has been the poster boy for this design paradigm. Last month's release of the long awaited Mass Effect: Cyclopean Wastes completes both the critically acclaimed Mass Effect: Andromeda trilogy and the storied career of gaming's go-to designer of open world side content that is goddamned awful. Since he owed my wife a favor for saving him from a rabid jellyfish one time in Barbados, he has granted me an exclusive interview to mark his retirement.

Good afternoon, Mr. Sharlt!
You can call me Emil. It's fine. By the transitive property of marriage, you also saved my life, if you think about it!
[He laughs.]

Alright, well, I was gonna dance around it a bit for the veneer of professionalism but you have a super unfortunate last name, yeah.
I'm aware! After [The Elder Scrolls IV:] Oblivion came out, they had to hire a dedicated forum moderator just to ban users for saying "more like Emil Shart, am I right?" Also, Google didn't stop prompting people who searched for my name with "Did you mean: Sharlto Copley?" until late 2020 when he had that scandal.

Yeah, where he apparently had this like addiction to fistfighting endangered animals in the wild? I actually tried to get an interview with the international park ranger who finally took him down, but those fuckers at Extremely Confident Jocks emailed her first.
Weird guy.

I mean, who among us isn't, in some very secret way? Anyway! So you did the infamous Line Cooks' Guild faction questline for Oblivion. How'd you get hired for that?
Oh, me and Todd [Howard, executive producer of Oblivion] attended high school together at the Maryland Academy of Wealth Arts. In 2004, my business shipping anime merchandise from Japan to stateside customers folded, and Todd did me a huge solid hiring me to do design and writing work on Oblivion. He was always a video games guy, even in high school, and I wasn't into that scene at all. He'd always be beating the high scores on the cafeteria arcade machines, surrounded by beautiful girls, and I didn't really "get it." You do what you can, though, when someone hires you to do a job with no interview or qualifications.

You were more of an anime guy, then?
Oh absolutely not! Very weird and offputting every time I tried it; I just fundamentally can't deal with drawings that move. Feels wrong and unsettling. Anyway, my business folded because the customer base got mad at me for calling it "Japanimation" in a leaked recording of a shareholder meeting. I thought the terms were interchangeable, but revenue dropped off a goddamn cliff over it. They felt way more strongly about that than I realized.

Huh. So, what sort of creative background did you have that led to the decisions you made in creating the Line Cooks' Guild?
I had never done anything like that before. As a kid I wasn't super into writing or drawing or pretend play or whatever. One of my teachers forced me to write a short story and I didn't really finish and when she read what I had so far she apologized and told me to never try it again. Mostly in my leisure time I do fly fishing, board games, and gravel gardening.

That definitely explains the half-assed Settlers of Catan esque minigame you used for the restaurant takeovers.
What the fuck is Settlers of Catan?

A board game?
I mainly play Snakes & Ladders, Chutes & Ladders, and when I'm with my rowdier friends, Hungry Hungry Hippos. I've never heard of Settlers of Catan.

Why does taking over the restaurants in Oblivion involve so much lumber and ore collecting, then?
That's just how I always pictured restaurant management working. They have to make the tables and chairs, and the silverware, right?

I think they just buy them?
Wow. I mean, that makes sense. Saves some steps.

So anyway, tell me a little about the post-release backlash you mentioned. You had a dedicated forum moderator for people who criticized you?
Oh I actually had three. The one for "Emil Shart" puns, the one for death threats, and the one for when people said they didn't like the questline. Todd, bless his heart, was very protective of me in the early days. And it made sense to be, since reviewers were calling for my head for tarnishing what they felt was otherwise as perfect as a game in that genre could be. Literally calling for my head, I mean. The editor of PC Gamer had a low five-figure bounty he was offering on the subterranean market if someone managed to successfully decapitate me.

Oh shit, I didn't realize it was that bad! Is that what your neck scar is from?
Oh, no, that was a Snakes & Ladders accident. You know how those snakes are.

Seems like the chutes might be safer.
Don't get me started on those fucking chutes.

You qualified Todd being protective with "in the early days." Tell me about that.
Well. You know I left after [The Elder Scrolls V:] Clown Kingdom, right? I'm not even in the credits for that one, but I did the clown car dealership plotline. I know that was always rumored, but I'm confirming it.

Speaking of rumors, is it true the original plan was like a snowy viking region and it was gonna be called Skyrim?
Oh yeah. That version was like 90% finished and then Todd came in one day looking like he hadn't slept and said "We're throwing this out and I don't have an alternative. It just can't be this." My friend Jen [Sands, the concept artist who designed the Anticlowns and the Daedric Mimes] overheard him talking to his therapist about it on the phone and apparently he thinks his future self visited him and warned him about the dark future that releasing Skyrim would have resulted in.

Oh, that happened to me once.
...Which part?

Future self visited with dire warnings.
That's crazy. You're as crazy as Todd.

In 2001 I was in junior high and my parents and I were on vacation and had brunch reservations at Windows on the World on 9/11. Look up where that was on Wikipedia.
[He gets out his iPhone and looks it up.]

Anyway. So what was the catalyst for going over to EA to work on Battlefield Infinite?
They made me an offer and Todd wouldn't match it. He told me that my work was terrible and everyone hated it.

That's objectively true.
Yeah, but I still gotta eat. And with the extra income I was finally able to marry the love of my life.

You're married!? God damn it, I'm gonna fuckin' fire my research intern.
Wait, wait, it was a figure of speech. I commissioned the solid mahogany Hungry Hippos board of my most beautiful dreams. Make sure you transcribe that correctly, by the way. Legally speaking, only an officially licensed and authorized board can have two Hungry's, and the Parker brothers are notoriously chitinous.

Do you mean "litigious?"

It must have been a good offer to work on a live service game, I guess.
I don't know what that means.

The model where Battlefield Infinite kept releasing new stuff until 2019 instead of making all that new stuff a separate game entirely.
Oh! I thought that was called a morg.

It's similar to an MMORPG, which is an abbreviation.
That explains a lot. I always thought people at the office were spelling it out because you weren't allowed to say it. Like it was against company policy or something.

Why would that be against company policy?
You know how it is, sometimes an executive gets a bee in their bonnet about some word they heard on the street, and they fire you if you say it, but if you just spell it out they can't tell because they're illiterate.

Oh, are there illiterate executives in EA leadership too? I figured it was just Bobby Kotick, and Tim Cook before he got tutoring.
There are, but you're mistaken about Bobby Kotick. He can read, and chooses not to. It's an ego thing, he feels like it's beneath him.

That makes sense. Anyway, the bonnet bee thing reminds me, my wife's been playing my review copy of Cyclopean Wastes and she tells me she's been avoiding an absolutely dreadful side activity on every planet where the game takes all your weapons except a glue gun and you have to use stealth to assassinate beekeepers in heavily fortified apiaries. Was that one your doing?
Oh, yes! You have to do those to romance the Wasp Empress.

Alright, but why is it a glue gun and not a honey gun? Sci-fi honey seems like it could be sticky enough.
I never thought of that! I think it's too late now to change that, though. I'm sorry. That's a really good idea.

So, what's next for you? Are you just gonna do solid mahogany board games in your mansion until you croak?
[He laughs.]
It's funny you should mention, I live in a condo overlooking Central Park, but I actually closed yesterday on the mansion that they shot the exterior of the Bennet estate at in the 1995 Pride & Prejudice miniseries. I'm having some work done on it before I move in, but the wheels are turning.

That's a really good miniseries. I did see that was on the market. Us poors were just kinda joking around about it, since it was like several million pounds.
I mean, if you and [your wife] are ever in the UK, you're welcome to visit. When the work gets done there's gonna be a really sick hedge maze with a heated pool in the middle, and an underground movie theater modeled after the one in the Ryder vs. Shepard DLC for Mass Effect: Shadow of the Unreapers.

Oh yeah, the one you did the popcorn serving minigame for. That was even worse than the street racing garage questline you did for the main game.
Thank you, I'm very proud of it. It's still true that I'm not married but I started dating Steph Yaris, the concept artist who designed that theater. She worked with the contractors on the design for the one we're putting in the mansion.

Steph Yaris, why is that name familiar? I do not keep track of Mass Effect concept artists, I always assumed there was just a machine with 1960s-style blinking lights and you inserted a Syd Mead painting and a shittier version came back out.
Yeah, that was Steph! That was before I got transferred to Bioware but they liked her so much they had a body made for her. EDI's thing in the original trilogy was based on that. Steph was some kind of acronym and they took apart a Toyota Yaris to make the first version of the body.

Holy shit! I was remembering Stefan Yaris, the Finnish country singer.
Never heard of him. Anyway, dinner is almost ready, is there a final burning question you have before I hop off?

Why did you never make any attempt to learn from your mistakes or improve your work? Why not make good side content?
That's not really my department. I leave that to my colleagues. I've found my niche, and I'm good at it.

Good at being bad at game design.
That's a great way of putting it! I can see why you're a writer.